Gospel Otherness: the Liturgical Shape of Mission

Away from campus groups for grown-ups and toward something deeper.

Recently on social media I've made a few comments like this:

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 4.34.15 PM

And this:

Screen Shot 2013-06-22 at 11.18.42 PM

I've also elaborated to include the idea that mission can quickly become misshapen when it is abstracted from the worship gathering where formation takes place. In other words, all of those missional strategies that pit the church "going out into the world" against the church "attracting people to itself" are misguided. They make critical assumptions about what exactly the church gathering entails which then produce a misinformed solution to the problem.

If you're keeping score, that's a lot of misses.

The missional conversation itself needs to transition from a form-based attempt at defining church as a small, scattered expression that's nearer to "the world" (missional communities, house church, etc.) to a substance-based attempt at defining church as a centered, gathered expression that is other-worldly for the sake of the world. 

And honestly, this definition of church is gloriously ancient, as urgently needed as it is in our present context. Externally, this is something like a parish model of church - a rooted, neighborhood church that is fundamentally formed around a worship experience. Internally, this is something like a liturgical emphasis - a weekly gathering that is committed to holistic repetition in worship, with the Eucharist as a primary, not secondary, practice.

This is not to say that the worship gathering is all the church does, but simply that it defines what the church is. This shapes mission. This forms God's people as God's people for the sake of renewal and restoration and kingdom expansion and living witness in the neighborhood.

Missional community practitioners are known to heavily emphasize the experience of community as central to the definition of church. They will routinely demean the "Sunday service" as an unnecessary and cumbersome attachment to what the church really is, and what God's mission is really about. Missional communities take shape as affinity groups of often young adult people who want to be together, who talk about theological subjects together, and who serve people together. None of which is bad - but these tend to become like campus groups for grown-ups, highly temporary in their manifestation, and lacking the substance of the practices which nurture and sustain the identity of the church.

Missional practitioners will often say: "The world is not interested in going to church - the world is looking for authentic community!" And while they may be right, they are overlooking a critical truth. Yes, the world is looking for authentic community - but the world is also finding authentic community. In all kinds of places. And honestly, as someone who has grown up in the church and experienced all manner of church community, and planted a church community with lots of passionate people, I can say with confidence that the world is often finding better community and more authentic community than anything the church - including the missional church - has to offer!

In our church plant Dwell (which closed last year), we were unbelievably passionate about community. In fact, if there was any banner that we waved, any anthem that we sang, besides Jesus of course, it was COMMUNITY. Yes, we idealized community because we thought we were experiencing the very best version of it. And yes, we even emphasized it so much that it became a bit of an idol.

We deified community.

And soon we learned, through conflict and turmoil and transition, that it was not all it was cracked up to be.

Since I've entered the post-church-plant wilderness, I have become more certain than ever that the world has plenty of community, and good community at that. And the church can certainly fill a need for good community. But the world is really looking for something else - something other. What makes the church different?

The church is truly different when it embodies gospel otherness.

At the center of the church's identity must be the rooted, repetitive practices that shape people into the body of Christ, the broken yet beautiful "fulness of him who is filling everything in every way." This, moreso than simply theological conversation (Bible studies) or fellowship and service, is what gives the good news its true and concrete expression. "Missional communities" may comprise a part of the church's life in the world, but they do not really identify the church as the church. They are not the central thing. The central thing must be the Table. The central thing must be the proclamation of gospel over the community by foundational leaders. The central thing must be the passionate worship which takes shape through songs and prayers. The central thing must be the sharing in ministry to the least among us and around us in our corporate life together (dare I say, offerings presented "at the apostle's feet"?!).

It is conceivable that all this could happen in a home, especially as a parish church is forming. A "missional order" type group that intentionally takes on practices which will shape it in gospel otherness may provide the foundation for missional people to form into a local expression of ecclesia in the neighborhood. But my personal experience suggests that the other-worldly experience of worship happens more effectively in non-home spaces. I am pleased to see the redemption of old church buildings happening for the sake of this parish approach, in addition to common spaces.

Lastly, the initial missional pushback against the "institutional" or "attractional" church gathering has to do with assumptions about what an organized church expression and gathering entails, namely, lots of unhealthy hierarchy and economics. This need not be so. The more substantial missional impulse which recognizes that God is always pressing forward and outward into the margins of culture and society to seek and to save that which is lost, that God is a missional God and the entire work of restoration and reconciliation through King Jesus for all people in all places is the mission, is absolutely vital in creating a streamlined church organization that truly exists for the sake of the world. At the root, the missional church recognizes that the church is sent, the church is mission, the church has no mission but the mission of God to restore all things. It does not exist to keep its own organization alive or make itself prosperous.

And yet, with a rooted, parish expression, the uniqueness of the church may be emphasized in the centered gathering and still be wholly missional. The other-worldliness of its practices and rituals are yet oriented outward, contextualized to the time and place in which it emerges. The goal is still to be shaped FOR God's mission in the world. This resists the pendulum swing in both directions - toward cumbersome, wealthy, institutional church or minimal, unstable, home communities. And perhaps it  provides a way beyond the other predominant model in North American consumer Christianity - namely, the non-local megachurch with all its business hierarchy and unhealthy economics. The parish church shaped by liturgy for God's mission is one that will probably include a plurality of bi-vocational leaders, a desire to organize "politically" for a peaceful presence, and a pushback against ideologies of success or church growth. And, it will be a truly unique (though far from perfect) gospel-shaped, authentic community.

Zach Hoag

Zach Hoag, 851 Woods Hollow Road, Westford, VT, 05494

Zach Hoag is an author, preacher, and creator from New England. He's also the author of The Light is Winning: Why Religion Just Might Bring Us Back to Life.